NFC North: Falcons-Vikings
CHICAGO -- Interesting starting lineups for both Chicago's offense and Green Bay's defense.
The Bears opened the game with two receivers and two tight ends, with tight end Greg Olsen lined up as a fullback/H-Back. The Packers countered with their nickel defense, which left Tramon Williams in the starting lineup and eliminated the need for a third linebacker. Williams had been starting at cornerback until the Packers returned Charles Woodson to that position in practice last week.
Given how the Bears essentially use Olsen as a receiver, it makes sense that the Packers would open in a nickel. As for the Bears, I assume Olsen in the backfield represents their "foul-weather" lineup. He caught a seven-yard pass on the Bears' first play but was ineffective as a lead blocker for Matt Forte on their second.
The Black and Blue blog is jumping from the Metrodome to Soldier Field, site of Part II of our first-ever weekend doubleheader.
Minnesota's 24-17 loss to Atlanta has left the NFC North door open for Chicago. And the Bears are also -- quite suddenly -- within reasonable reach of a wild-card berth should they win Monday night and next week at Houston. (Check back for more on the Bears situation at 9 a.m. ET. )
We hope to bring you our regular Monday features, including Three Answers on the Vikings and Detroit Lions, as the day progresses. The plan is to be at Soldier Field by late afternoon. We'll start pumping you full of updates then.
For now, let's get ourselves updated on the division:
- All nine Chicago Tribune football writers are picking the Bears to win Monday night. The Tribune's Vaughn McClure notes the team's 37-3 loss last month at Lambeau gives the Bears "reason to despise their nemesis even more."
- Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel comes up with this statistic: The Bears are 0-6 in their past six night home games against the Packers. In those games, the Packers have outscored the Bears 58-7 in the first quarter and 186-87 overall.
- Minnesota tight end Visanthe Shiancoe had a career game in the Vikings' loss, catching seven passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns. According to Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune, Shiancoe put in extra time with quarterback Tarvaris Jackson after every practice last week.
- Minnesota tight end Jim Kleinsasser, who has been with the Vikings since 1999, has seen this before. "It's right there in your grasp. And then you don't get the job done. Seems like we've done that quite a lot around here." Tom Powers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press on the Vikings' self-inflicted predicament.
- Here's one statistic you don't see too often: Detroit allowed New Orleans to convert its first 11 third-down attempts. The 12th? It came on a kneel-down to end the game. David Birkett of the Oakland Press has that statistic and other notes.
- Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press on the Lions' decision to retain chief operating officer Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew: "You've got to be kidding." (For more on that story, check back at 11 a.m. ET.)
|AP Photo/Tom Olmscheid|
|Minnesota's Bernard Berrian was one of several Vikings who coughed up the ball in a 24-17 loss to the Falcons.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
MINNEAPOLIS -- Can I get a little help here? I'm looking for a seven-letter word for "choke."
That way, we'd have one letter for every fumble Minnesota coughed up in the biggest game of its season -- an embarrassing display that called into question whether this is truly a playoff-caliber team. The Vikings still remain in control of the NFC North after a 24-17 loss to Atlanta, but let's be clear: Their aspirations of a postseason run will be moot if they repeat this performance any time soon.
"That's unheard of," receiver Bobby Wade said. "I don't know a team in history that can win a game if you [fumble] seven times. I don't know how many times we lost it? Four? You're not going to win many games like that."
The Vikings could have clinched the division title Sunday at their home stadium. Instead, you had Bernard Berrian fumbling a punt return in the first quarter. You had a ball sailing over the shoulder of quarterback Tarvaris Jackson in a shotgun formation.
You had Jackson losing the ball on a sack and having it bounce 30 yards behind him. Then there was tailback Adrian Peterson dropping the ball after bumping into left tackle Bryant McKinnie. You even had Peterson and Jackson botching a simple handoff.
"A couple of them were mistakes that maybe a professional team shouldn't make," safety Darren Sharper said. "Whenever you have exchanges, things like that, things that we do all day during practice, things like that should be second nature. Those are big mistakes."
Sharper, of course, freely admitted the bumbling extended to the Vikings' defense, which missed an opportunity to prevent the eventual winning score. Sharper overran a loose ball in the end zone late in the third quarter, trying to make a game-changing play when falling on the ball would have saved a score.
All told, the Vikings matched an NFL season-high with four lost fumbles -- including three in Falcons territory. (San Francisco and Arizona have done it once apiece this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.)
How does a veteran team that has won four consecutive games, and five of it past six, produce such a self-inflicted clunker? Surely no one overlooked the Falcons, who entered the game with an identical 9-5 record. But Sharper admitted the Vikings didn't match Atlanta's "intensity," and Griffin described their play as "lackadaisical."
"I thought we were focused during the week of practice," Griffin said. "But at the same time, we kind of laid down there a little bit."
That's not a good sign for a team that could win the division as early as Monday night, should Green Bay defeat the favored Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Even if the Bears win, the Vikings can clinch the title with a victory next Sunday at home against the New York Giants -- or with a Chicago loss at Houston the same day.
Given those relatively good odds, most players went out of their way Sunday to emphasize calm.
"It's not over," cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "We will continue to work hard. We understand where we are. One more win and we get in. We can't worry about [the Chicago game]. We have to go out there and handle our own business."
Winfield said he'll be tuned in Monday night but said a Bears loss "isn't the way we want to get in."
I like Winfield's thinking along with that of Sharper, who said the Vikings need to beat the Giants next Sunday regardless of what happens Monday night in Chicago.
Entering the playoffs on a two-game losing streak? Not a good combination.
"This game was a step back for us," Sharper said. "But we know if we come back with a win next week against a good team, that'll get us back to where we were."
A few other points worth noting:
- Although he was credited with three of the Viki
ngs' fumbles, Jackson turned in a solid performance overall. There is little question he'll remain the team's starter. In addition to scrambling for a career-high 76 yards, Jackson threw a pair of touchdown passes to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe. "He's solid," Wade said. "He's ready to go. He's not focused on being the reason we don't win. He's focused on being the leader of this team and taking us downfield and scoring points."
- Peterson committed two of the fumbles, losing one, in addition to being a part of the botched exchange with Jackson. (Technically, Jackson got credit for that turnover.) The fumbles bring Peterson's season total to eight, an NFL-high. Peterson said Sunday the mistakes are "killing me" but attributed them to fighting for extra yardage. "The type of running back I am, I find myself out there fighting for yards and kind of put myself in a vulnerable position. When I'm scratching for yards, you've got 11 guys coming in trying to knock that ball out. I really have to be conscious of holding the ball tight."
- Coach Brad Childress was working the locker room Sunday afternoon, offering encouragement after a curt session with reporters. "We have a standard," Childress said, "in terms of guys that touch it, protecting it. We didn't do a very good job."
MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota made it interesting, but in the end it was unable to clinch a playoff berth Sunday at the Metrodome.
The Vikings fumbled seven times against the Atlanta Falcons and lost four. Those turnovers, along with a host of other mistakes, did them in and left Minnesota hoping for a Green Bay victory over Chicago Monday night.
Should the Bears win that game, the Vikings would need either to beat the New York Giants in their regular-season finale or hope for a Bears loss the same day at Houston.
The Vikings probably aren't going to be interested in hearing those scenarios after crumbling in the franchise's biggest game in four years. They simply never gave themselves a chance against a good Atlanta team. Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson pulled them within a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, but he ended their final possession with four consecutive incompletions.
We'll be back with you in a few hours. But to repeat the headline: The NFC North is vacant for at least one more day.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota just took its big swing and missed, and a sellout crowd at the Metrodome is heading for the exits.
Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson overthrew receiver Bernard Berrian on a fourth-down pass from the Falcons' 47-yard line, turning the ball over on downs with eight minutes left to play. The Vikings trail 24-10 and might not have enough time for two more conventional touchdown drives.
Barring something unexpected, we'll check back with you shortly after the final gun.
MINNEAPOLIS -- If you're a Chicago fan right now, you're feeling pretty good.
The Vikings just fell behind Atlanta 24-7 on another comedy of errors:
- Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson allows a shotgun snap to sail over his left shoulder.
- Falcons get good field position on the ensuing punt, taking over at their 49-yard line.
- Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan fumbles at the goal line, but two Vikings -- safety Darren Sharper and cornerback Cedric Griffin -- miss a chance to recover in the end zone. Falcons guard Justin Blalock falls on the ball for the touchdown.
Barring a huge comeback from the Vikings, the Bears will end this day still in contention for the NFC North title. They would have to do their part by defeating Green Bay on Monday night, but it's certainly preferable to the alternative.
MINNEAPOIS -- OK, I just saw a play that suggests this isn't going to be Minnesota's day.
Well, somehow Moorehead knocked the ball out of Jackson's hands and about 30 yards back the other way. Falcons defensive end Chauncey Davis chased it down and recovered, making it the Vikings' fourth turnover in less than 35 minutes of play.
The Vikings' defense forced a punt, but you don't often see teams recover from a four-turnover deficit in the giveaway-takeaway battle.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Some halftime observations from the Metrodome, where Atlanta leads Minnesota 17-7:
- We've already touched on it a couple of times, but it bears repeating: This is not the way a playoff-caliber team should show up for a huge game like this. The Vikings have done some good things, but three fumbles -- one in the red zone, the other two in Falcons territory -- are inexcusable if you intend to be a division champion.
- I don't think there's any doubt the Vikings miss nose tackle Pat Williams. The Falcons offensive line is having its way in the running game. Tailback Michael Turner is halfway to the first 100-yard game against the Vikings this season.
- The Vikings are getting a good rush on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, but Ryan has come up with a number of amazingly composed throws. Ryan's overall numbers -- 11 of 18 for 108 yards -- don't represent how well he has played.
- Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson has been stellar, converting a third down with a 29-yard scramble while completing eight of nine passes for 99 yards. He has picked up where he left off last week in Arizona.
- The Falcons offense is doing a good job eating up clock, making each Vikings possession that much more crucial. The Falcons have held the ball for 16 minutes, 36 seconds. That's left the Vikings with five possessions. They've squandered three with fumbles and scored one touchdown. The other ended on downs at the end of the first half.
MINNEAPOLIS -- More evidence that Minnesota entered this game a little tight around the edges: Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson just lost his second fumble of the first half, giving Atlanta field position at the Vikings' 46-yard line.
(Technically, quarterback Tarvaris Jackson got credit for the fumble because Peterson never gained possession after the handoff.)
Peterson's first fumble ended a Vikings drive at the Falcons' 17-yard line. Overall, the Vikings have lost three fumbles and committed three costly penalties. They are giving a good Falcons team way too many chances to break this game open.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Still trying to figure out why Atlanta coach Mike Smith didn't challenge what was ruled a 21-yard touchdown reception by Minnesota tight end Visanthe Shiancoe here at the end of the first quarter.
Shiancoe caught a bootleg pass from quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and rumbled toward the end zone. Falcons cornerback Domonique Foxworth clearly brought Shiancoe down before the ball crossed the plane of the end zone, but officials ruled it a touchdown to tie the game at 7.
Replays left no doubt that Shiancoe should have been ruled down at the 1-yard line, but Smith did not challenge the play. It's possible Smith didn't want to use a challenge when, even if he would have won, the Vikings would have had a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line.
I'd say the Vikings entered this game a little tight. Defensive tackle Kevin Williams was offsides twice on the Falcons' first drive. Chester Taylor bobbled his first kickoff return, giving the Vikings poor field position at the 10-yard line. And Bernard Berrian just muffed a punt, giving the Falcons possession on the 22-yard line.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Nervous? No, not me. But that's the feeling I got from walking through the Metrodome Sunday afternoon.
It's been a pretty quiet pregame. The crowd is either late-arriving or spending a long time tailgating. Given the frigid temperatures here, I'm guessing it's the former case.
The last time a game at the Metrodome had such implications within the division was 2004, when the Vikings and Green Bay played what amounted to an NFC North title game. The Packers won 34-31, but both teams ended up in the playoffs.
The Vikings haven't been back to the playoffs since, so I'm guessing there is at least a section of fans who holding back their positive anticipation.
We'll check back regularly during the game and then shortly thereafter.
MINNEAPOLIS -- No surprises on Minnesota's inactive list, which was just distributed here in the Metrodome. Ryan Cook will again start at right tackle in place of Artis Hicks (elbow).
Here's the entire list for both teams:
Quarterback D.J. Shockley
Cornerback Glenn Sharpe
Safety Eric Brock
Linebacker Tony Gilbert
Center Alex Stepanovich
Defensive end Simon Fraser
Offensive tackle Quinn Ojinnaka
Tight end Marcus Pollard
Quarterback John David Booty
Tight end Garrett Mills
Linebacker Dontarrious Thomas
Defensive end Otis Grigsby
Offensive lineman Artis Hicks
Wide receiver Darius Reynaud
Defensive end Pat Williams
Defensive tackle Letroy Guion
MINNEAPOLIS -- Picked up a solid 63 degrees this afternoon upon walking into the Metrodome, where the climate is quite balmy for a reasons we'll get to in a second.
First, for all those who are clamoring for an outdoor stadium in Minnesota, it's warmed up to 2 degrees Sunday afternoon and the wind chills make it feel like a mild 15-below.
But inside, the temperature is a toasty 65. Sometimes the Metrodome is downright chilly a few hours before games, but local officials were required to blast the heat in order to melt snow on top of the building's Teflon roof.
That's standard procedure when it snows here. Otherwise, the roof could collapse under the extra weight. (Yes, it might be time for a facility upgrade in Minnesota).
We're keeping an eye on the Detroit-New Orleans game and will check in with some analysis when the game is complete. We'll also try to give you a feel for the mood here in the Metrodome as game time grows closer.
Is this the biggest moment at the Metrodome since the 1998 NFC Championship Game? That seems to be the suggestion from the Star Tribune, which chose Sunday to commemorate the 1998 Vikings team that went 15-1 but were stopped by -- yes -- Atlanta in its march to the Super Bowl.
Ten years later, those same Falcons have arrived in Minnesota in hopes of delaying the Vikings' march to the NFC North title. The Vikings have won only one division title since the 1998, but they can clinch it Sunday with a victory over the Falcons. (Or a Chicago loss Monday night to Green Bay).
To give this game its due, let's take an expanded look from a local perspective. Check one post above for the Bears' playoff scenarios, as well as links to coverage in Green Bay and Detroit.
- Mark Craig of the Star Tribune spoke with former Vikings coach Mike Tice, who said: "As an alumni and now a fan of the team, I'm excited. We're all excited to be this close to winning the division."
- Patrick Reusse of the Star Tribune catches up with three Minnesota women whose forlorn expressions in a 1998 photograph captured a decade of disappointment for Vikings fans.
- Former owner Red McCombs tells Craig that he still gets questioned about why he traded the star of the 1998 team, receiver Randy Moss. Even from Tiger Woods.
- The Vikings have returned their faith to quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, writes Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune. Does that mean he will be their starter in 2009?
- The Vikings should unleash Jackson against the Falcons, urges Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
- Vikings defensive line coach Karl Dunbar will have his strong reputation tested by the loss of nose tackle Pat Williams, writes Rick Alonzo of the Pioneer Press.
Taking a look at the significant injury situations in the NFC North:
Chicago: Tailback Matt Forte (toe) returned to practice Friday on a limited basis. While he's listed as questionable for Monday night's game against Green Bay, there is every expectation he will play. Fullback Jason McKie (quadriceps) is out. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris (knee) will play. The status of receiver Marty Booker (ribs) is uncertain, but this might be an all-hands-on-deck type of game.
Detroit: Cornerback Leigh Bodden (groin) was listed as questionable, but defensive coordinator Joe Barry told reporters he should be available for Sunday's game against New Orleans. Tailback Kevin Smith (ankle) is also questionable, but he is expected to play as well. Defensive tackle Chuck Darby (calf) will be available. Guard Edwin Mulitalo's status will be determined Sunday morning.
Green Bay: The biggest news is that defensive tackle Justin Harrell (hip and back) has been declared out. The former first-round draft pick is not expected to play again this year. Running back Brandon Jackson (wrist) is questionable.
Minnesota: Offensive lineman Artis Hicks (elbow) is doubtful for Sunday's game against Atlanta, meaning Ryan Cook will make another start at right tackle. Kick returner Darius Reynaud (toe) also isn't expected to play. Quarterback Gus Frerotte (back) is expected to be the No. 2 quarterback. Defensive end Jared Allen (knee) practiced Friday and will start.